At first glance it seemed to be a thunderbolt from the blue, a verdict that begs for perspective. Monica Seles' German attacker was convicted Wednesday but set free? A judge in Hamburg ruled that Seles' assailant, Guenter Parche, premeditated the crime, stalked Seles, then stabbed her during a tennis match in Hamburg because of his sick obsession with countrywoman Steffi Graf, whom Seles had eclipsed atop the tennis world?
And yet the same judge decided Parche--though convicted--deserved no prison time? No court-mandated psychiatric treatment was announced?
The expressions of shock and outrage Wednesday were instantaneous, as was the outpouring of sympathy for 19-year-old Seles. By Thursday, much of what had been said also seemed obvious: Freeing Parche, 39, does no one any good. Certainly not Parche, who was diagnosed as "a highly abnormal personality" by the court's own psychiatrist. Certainly not Seles and Graf, who now have to worry that the unemployed lathe operator might surface outside a store window, or in a hotel lobby, or in the restaurant booth next to theirs some day.
Seles -- who was already struggling deeply with the irrationality of Parche's April 30 attack on her -- was devastated by Wednesday's news, according to a friend. As of Thursday, no one was telling if the setback would derail Seles' plans to return to tennis as soon as early December at an exhibition in Ireland. It's also too early to know if grief or disgust or the baggage of public life would cause Seles to walk away at the height of her game, as Michael Jordan just did. Until now there's been no hint of that.
Nor has there ever been from Graf.
If Seles needs a blueprint on how to weather this latest heartbreak, she might find Graf's past responses to the stalkers who have shadowed her instructive. While acknowledging all the heartache that Seles has gone through, Graf, now 24, has been something of a forgotten casualty in this ordeal -- a woman who was already haunted by at least two other obsessed fans, including one who scaled a fence and slit his wrists in her presence, on a tennis court, because Graf wouldn't marry him.
Now along comes Parche, who admitted having an irrational, obsessional love for Graf that drove him to drive a 9 1/2-inch boning knife into Seles' back.
The next day, Graf paid Seles a tearful visit at the hospital. Feeling listless, she eventually lost the Hamburg final after debating whether to play the match at all because, as one confidant says, "she felt it was almost inappropriate for her to be out there, given what happened to Monica."
Since then, Graf somehow righted herself and became almost defiant in the face of continued torment. A male stalker heckled her at the French Open, which she won, then followed her to Wimbledon, where Graf again noted his presence during a first-round win. Security tossed the man out. Twelve days later, Graf won Wimbledon -- refusing the addition of extra bodyguards, refusing to concede her antagonist had burrowed into her psyche at all.
When she regained the No. 1 world ranking, Graf said it didn't matter to her anymore. Then she won the U.S. Open -- giving her a sweep of all three Grand Slams and all six tournaments she entered after Parche surfaced with his deranged plan. This despite an injured foot that was finally surgically repaired this month.
In her brief victory speech at the U.S. Open, Graf acknowledged she missed Seles on the tour.
It was perfect: a final stroke of grace by a woman of courage.
"Basically, she refuses to be a victim," says Phil de Picciotto, Graf's agent. "Clearly, Steffi has not felt the physical pain Monica has. She's not been attacked or forced to interrupt her career. But the emotional impact of this has been stronger for Steffi than anyone else but Monica and her family. She's had some similar intrusions into her own life. And she's been determined to be strong."
For Seles, feeling twice victimized is an understandable -- even appropriate -- reaction. But, ultimately, it will be a useless one.
Parche is a proven crackpot (you have to hope someone in his family or his acquaintance will prevail upon him to seek psychiatric help, since the court hasn't.) Judge Elke Bosse's handling of this case has shed light -- again -- on the German judicial system's peculiar and lax response to recent nationalistic or terroristic violence. That a woman judge presided over Parche's case proves nothing, either, except women can be just as stupid as men.
But everybody is fooling themselves if we think Germany is the only place where violence against women (or foreigners, or anyone) goes unpunished. Or misunderstood. I don't think I've had a particularly remarkable life, but it hasn't been a naive one. I've been blessed with enough friends. But I'm not one of those remarkably gregarious people who, when they die, will need a high school gym to hold everyone who shows up for the wake.
And still, I have friends who have been raped, or gay-bashed, or attacked by assailants who never spent a day in jail. I have a friend whose brother was murdered by his lover, and another whose girlfriend was bludgeoned to death by Ted Bundy, a mass murderer who's been morbidly glamorized in movies. I've known too many men and women who've been psychologically or physically terrorized -- usually by men: their fathers, their brothers, their husbands or co-workers. And that's not some feministic rant; it's documented by the statistics. It's a fact.
If I've become convinced of anything, it's that Seles' attack should not be taken as just an isolated incident. Nor are such incidents only the acts of "madmen."
That might be consoling to think. But so-called normal people are wreaking violence upon other normal, innocent people all the time. And getting away with it. Victims are shattered; the criminals remain unhelped. And the not-so-subtle message is that certain people are expendable, or able to be acted upon. Violence -- particularly against women -- has become so eroticized, it often appears that some men experience violence as sexual.
Undeniably, there's a weird sort of pathology at play. In the end, when another incident surfaces, the hope is always the same: That the violence will ebb or be explained. That the victims bounce back. That shouting out a complaint anew will matter. When the initial surprise wanes, what you're reminded of is that Parche's sentence wasn't a shocking departure from anything. As postcripts on the Seles case go, that's the saddest one of all.